Words Fail Me. (Stanley Cavell's Life out of Music)

In David LaRocca (ed.), Inheriting Stanley Cavell: Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Bloomsbury. pp. 187-97 (2020)
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Stanley Cavell isn't the first to arrive at philosophy through a life with music. Nor is he the first whose philosophical practice bears the marks of that life. Much of Cavell's life with music is confirmed for the world in his philosophical autobiography Little Did I Know. A central moment in that book is Cavell's describing the realization that he was to leave his musical career behind – for what exactly, he did not yet know. He connects the memory-shock of this leaving with "the work of mourning." How does such a life out of music inform Cavell's philosophical sensibility? The thought I follow in this essay is that Cavell's distinctive orientation in philosophy – call this his lifelong coming to terms with his abandoning a life in music – is guided in part by an interest in those moments in experience where words seem to run out, or veer toward nonsense, leaving in their wake touchstones of ecstasy. I explore this idea by summarizing my exchange with Stanley Cavell years ago when I asked him whether certain passages from his essay "Music Discomposed" are depictions of the unsayable. Cavell's response is elaborated, or qualified, by considering a pair of moments in Little Did I Know where words appear to run out. I conclude by discussing culminating thoughts on the burden borne by words and their failure that appear in Cavell's late essay on music, "Impressions of Revolution."

Author's Profile

William Day
Le Moyne College


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